The men in the tavern looked up, curious as to why the door was being barred and the windows shuttered. I felt it was being a bit excessive, myself. It wasn’t like we’d been spotted coming in. Or at least, I didn’t think we had.
“Is this necessary?” I asked Enwye. “You’ll attract more attention by acting out of the ordinary.”
“They’ve been expecting you,” said Enwye. “Soldiers have been told to be on the lookout. There’s a reward. A big one.”
I glanced around the room at the men peering through the gloom at me. They all looked the types who wouldn’t mind a few extra coins in their pockets.
“Don’t worry,” said Enwye. “If it wasn’t for you, most of these layabouts would be up the front, fighting for their lives, and five minutes after that, feeding the worms.”
“We won’t forget what you did for us, lad,” said a man with a bushy beard. He turned to the other tables. “You ‘member what this boy done for us, don’t you?”
There was a lot of nodding and grumbling and calls of, “I ‘member.”
It’s not that I doubted their sincerity, it was just that sincerity isn’t a fixed thing. You can totally mean something when you say it, but ten minutes later circumstances may have changed. Obviously, they were all going to stand tall and have my back when everyone else was doing it, and when there was no immediate threat. But it only took one of them to think how they really needed the reward money, not for themselves, of course, but for the new baby or their old mam, and I’d be completely buggered.
“Thanks, I appreciate it.” I could practically hear the knives sharpening. I turned back to Enwye. “How quickly can you get me to see Mama Ivy?”
“Little Chicken,” he called to his nephew. “Take them over the roofs.”
Little Chicken was the one who betrayed us last time. He was in the pay of Corporal Ween who wanted to ‘recruit’ a few soldiers for the Dargot army—he worked on commission. I’d convinced Chicken of the error of his ways, or rather, Jenny had by beating the living shit out of him, and it had been him who had summoned Mama Ivy.
My plan had been to get a few wives and kids to turn up so Ween couldn’t pull any shenanigans. Nothing like a little spotlight to scare off the cockroaches. Instead, he’d returned with half the women in the area, led by Mama Ivy. Scariest old woman I’ve ever seen. And that’s saying something—my gran had a full beard.
“I don’t know if I can,” he stammered. “I suppose I can try.”
Apparently, time had healed him of any remorse he’d had.
“Yes,” I said, “you can, and you won’t mention it to anyone or I’ll set her on you.” I pointed at Jenny.
Little Chicken blanched. Jenny looked over questioningly. She probably had no idea who he was or the mess she’d made of his face last time they met.
After some food and visits to the toilet—an occasion where girls going together actually served a purpose—we climbed the stairs and made our way out of the skylight. Keezy gave everyone a leg up and then easily climbed through himself.
The roof was raked at a slight angle, but not that hard to run across. The gaps between buildings were more of a problem. Little Chicken had gone this way when I sent him to fetch reinforcements, so it was doable, but he hadn’t had Flossie with him.
“Ah can’t, Ah’m gonna fall.” She said, teetering on the edge. It wasn’t a very big jump—couple of feet at most—but it was a long way down.
“Think of it like when you’re on Vikchutni. You run all over him when we’re much higher than this.”
It was true but it still didn’t help. In the end, Keezy picked her up like a baby and carried her over. After which, she insisted on being carried across all gaps.
“Why does he keep looking at me like that?” Jenny asked. She was referring to Little Chicken’s nervous glances in her direction.
“You beat him up last time you were here.”
“But he’s only a kid.”
“I know. You’re a deeply troubled woman.”
“Is that why I fell for you?” she asked very seriously.
“Yes,” I answered, equally seriously.
There were some close calls, a few loose tiles that made people lose their footing, someone below who claimed to have seen someone on the roof (before being told he was seeing things) and a gang of cats that had made one roof their home. Our arrival was met with hisses and arched backs. Even Jenny backed off, and she was a cat lover. Mr Puffy wasn’t here to save her now.
We made it to the shitty part of town. You could tell house prices weren’t going to be skyrocketing around here anytime soon. The smell didn’t help, for a start. I guess it was garbage, but it’s hard to know what you’re smelling once it gets above a certain level of disgusting. Rats scuttled over the roofs and along gutters. Actual, small rats. I would have considered them to be quite large if I hadn’t spent the better part of the last few days in the company of one that was over a metre tall.
I wondered how Nyx would react to a real rat. Treat it like a relative? Or just an animal, the way we treat monkeys.
There wasn’t time to ponder such things. Little Chicken disappeared over the edge of the building we were standing on. There was nowhere else to jump to, and the buildings around us looked like they’d collapse if we tried it.
I leaned over the side and saw a trellis. It looked like there hadn’t been any plants growing on it in a long time. We all clambered down and Little Chicken led us through tiny backyards and narrow alleys. There were screams and shouts. Sometimes they turned into laughter, sometimes they were just accompanied by them.
We ended up outside a kitchen door. There was light and much activity going on inside.
“This is it,” said Little Chicken. He just stood there.
“Aren’t you going to knock?” I asked him.
He shook his head. I pushed past him and raised my hand. Just before my knuckles landed, the door was pulled open. A small girl, her face covered in streaks of flour (either that or she was very public about her cocaine addiction) looked up at me.
“You can come in,” she said like she’d been expecting us.
Inside, it was warm and smelled quite nice. There were half a dozen women bustling about making dinner. Pots and pans rattled and bubbled on the stove. A large fireplace had more pots hanging over it. Kids ran around in between legs and under tables. It was quite the idyllic scene.
I walked in and was ignored by everyone. Felt like old times. “Ahem,” I coughed, “is Mama Ivy here?”
They all stopped what they were doing and stared at me. Which was unnerving. They still didn’t say anything. Then, one of the older girls walked over carrying a half-gutted carcass of something and smiled at Little Chicken. His face went red and he shyly grinned in return. I stepped in and shoved him out of the door.
“No time for a romantic side story, you can go.” I shut the door on him. “Yo! Mama Ivy, let’s go. You people owe me a favour and right here’s where you pay up.
There was a scraping sound and the women moved aside. In the far corner, getting up out of a large wooden chair that seemed to be trying to stay attached to her giant posterior, was Mama Ivy.
She was a tiny woman, but broad. Her white hair was tied back in a bun to allow full view of her wrinkled face and prominent mole. She leaned on a walking stick made from a branch that looked like it had fallen out of a tree earlier. Slowly, she hobbled towards me.
She was hunched over and couldn’t move her head very much so peered up at me. It was difficult to maintain eye contact and not pull focus to the carbuncle clamped onto the side of her nose.
“You,” she said. That was the whole sentence.
“Yes, me. Hello.” My innate need to be polite to older people kicked in. “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind, could you possibly he—”
She raised her hand over her head so it was directly in front of my face. The veins were dark and plentiful, the fingers caked in grit. Talk to the hand, medieval edition.
She took a few steps until she was standing in front of Keezy. She straightened up, her hunch straightening with a grisly crack. There was strain in her face as she looked up at Keezy who even in his human form towered over her.
“I will allow you here, for now,” she said. “But when the boy leaves, so do you. From the city.” She touched the pendant hanging around her neck. It looked like gold, but the way Keezy started shaking, I guessed it was brass, gravely poisonous to trolls.
Her body returned to the crouched form like it was on a spring. She shuffled along until she got to Jenny. “Your mind is clouded.”
“I feel fine, thank—”
The hand was up to cut her off. “You have a dark aura laid upon you.”
“Can you get rid of it?” I asked. If she could bring back Jenny’s memories, we’d have this quest done in record time. Bonus loot! (I wish).
“I will try,” said Mama Ivy. “It is a thick fog.” She lightly placed her palm on Jenny’s face, then pulled it back and slapped her viciously.
The sound of it was so harsh, I flinched back like she’d hit me. Jenny stumbled back and then straightened up, her eyes rolling around in her head.
“Anything?” asked Mama Ivy.
“No,” said Jenny. “I feel the same. Just bleeding.” She dabbed at her lips with her fingers. They were bloody.
“Ah well,” said Mama Ivy with a shrug “Worth a try.”
So that was her idea of powerful anti-voodoo magic—a slap in the face. How could I lose with her on my side?
“We’re looking for a girl,” I said, trying to get us back on track.
“Yes, the one with the big nose.”
“Yo’ve seen her,” shouted Flossie, bouncing up and down.
“Yes, her and the black one.” Casual racism notwithstanding, this was excellent news.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“The girl works at the cathouse down the street.”
“Cat house? You mean…”
“Yes, a brothel.”
“Really? How much does she make?” I was punched in the arms, Flossie on one side, Jenny on the other. Muscle memory.
“You can ask her yourself, but be careful. The Administrator has the area under surveillance. They are expecting you, Visitor.”
“I know where the brothel is,” said Keezy. Everyone in the room gave him the one eyebrow lift. “It’s not what you think.”
I should hope not. Those poor girls probably had a difficult enough time with their limp-dicked regulars. Keezy put the rock in rock hard.
We left Mama Ivy, or rather we slowly backed out of the kitchen. She just had a way of making you feel she was going to do something terrible any minute.
Outside, the evening was just getting started. The noise had gotten louder, and the smell had somehow intensified. Keezy led us very quickly to a large building decked out in coloured lights. Torches behind stained glass gave it a carnival vibe. The half-dressed women lounging around gave it a more ‘daddy didn’t love me and look what happened’ vibe.
There were tables outside with men drinking and letting the women have the occasional sip. As we watched from an alley, a man got up, grabbed a girl by the waist and they both staggered inside. Which is when I saw Claire.
She came out, looking tired and carrying a tray. She picked up empty jugs and wiped down the tables. One of the men lunged for her but she neatly sidestepped. Didn’t get mad, didn’t even react hardly, just carried on. She looked dead on her feet.
“Oh!” gasped Flossie when she spotted her. She tried to run across the street but all three of us grabbed her, pulling her back into the shadows. I gave a Jenny a quizzical look.
“I promised on Mr Puffy.” I wondered if that was the only reason she was playing along.
“We have to wait,” I whispered into Flossie’s ear. “Soldiers.”
They weren’t obvious, men leaning against walls, standing in doorways, but they had a shifty look to them. And the more you looked, the more of them you saw. Strolling by, and then back the other way.
She was a few metres away, but there was no way to get to her without getting caught. What I needed was a plan. Smart, unexpected, impossible to predict.
“You’ll never get anything done standing here,” said a small voice from behind us.
I spun around, instinctively grabbing Jenny and using her as a shield.
“Let go of me,” said Jenny, trying to shake me off.
A small figure emerged from the dark. “Love not working out, then?” said Biadet. “So it’s like that.”